Planning efforts often fail, and one important reason is that planners underestimate the time it takes for causes to produce effects. You might plan, for instance, to expand your sanctuary to make space to welcome more people. Increased attendance would be the obvious measure of success, but the first actual fruits of the expansion are noise, dust, and disruption. The result: attendance usually goes down before it goes up.
While this may be rather obvious with building projects, the same principle applies to any major change a planning process might propose. Instead of adding sanctuary space, for instance, you might add a worship service. The ultimate (and often realistic) hope is to make room for a bigger congregation, but first the congregational system has to go through some intermediate steps. If you evaluate too soon, you risk pulling the plug just as the plan starts to work. Budgets and other projections need to be realistic about “system delays”—the pause between the cause and the effect.
Another area of planning where leaders often expect results too soon is staffing. It is realistic to expect a successful youth minister to bring new families into the church. But how soon is it realistic to start measuring success through membership or contribution numbers? In general I think growth during the first three years of a new staff member’s tenure—if it happens—is attributable mostly to what went before.
One of the first things a new, change-oriented staff member may need to do is to disappoint and alienate people who prefer the status quo. Certainly this is true with clergy who enter static or declining congregations. Whatever patterns of behavior were preventing growth before need to be changed, and in the short run that is likely to repel more members than it attracts. At the beginning of the fourth year it begins to be realistic to evaluate performance based on objective measures like membership, attendance, and financial giving. Unfortunately by that time the congregation may already have rendered its verdict and declared the experiment a failure. The fourth year is soon enough to start measuring staff performance by the numbers.
The first delay in planning often is the decision to accept the plan. Confronted with a typical “report and recommendations” for significant change, most boards and congregations initially say no—or send the plan back to the drawing board. A better method is to engage decision makers in reflection on the reasons for the change and its practical implications. Either way, decision making takes time.
In truth, important decisions often need to be made not once but several times—a change in worship needs support from leaders in music, education, hospitality, and membership development. Lukewarm commitment in any of these areas can stunt an innovative service, for example, by creating the impression it is less “real” than the traditional ones. The time it takes to secure support from all of the interested stakeholders is well spent—but lengthens the delay between the plan and the hoped-for results.
Planners sometimes try to accelerate the process by neglecting to decide clearly why they are proposing a change. Why are we proposing a new worship service? Are we trying to accommodate excess demand for our current style of worship—which would call for a “clone” of the current service? Or do we mean to reach out to a population we are not currently reaching—in which case it would make more sense to plan something distinctly different, to be marketed mostly outside the current membership? Fudging this decision or garnering support by promising to please everyone often produces awkward “hybrid” worship that regularly irritates all comers.
Too often congregations start new worship services in order to appease a group that is unhappy with the current service. Such efforts rarely generate attendance big enough to justify the cost. The result of glossing over issues like this in the interest of a quick decision can leave the congregation with a tiny “early” or “alternative” service that absorbs tremendous staff time while squatting on a precious bit of time and space.
After inaugurating the new service, it is still not realistic to expect it to produce higher attendance right away. One short-run effect may be the loss of people for whom “seeing everyone” or “feeling intimate” is a priority; or who see the goal of growth not as an opportunity to offer something valuable to newcomers, but as a self-aggrandizing push from the clergy leader. The first result of adding a new service may be to heat up a dispute about God’s attitude toward snare drums on the one hand and pipe organs on the other. Just as with a building program, attendance can go down for a while before it rises.
So it goes, whether the plan is for a new curriculum, a social justice ministry, a communication strategy, or a new musical ensemble. Human nature wants immediate results, but organizational systems take time to absorb important changes, address resistance to them, and start producing measurable results.
The lesson for planners and governing board members is clear: in presenting a new vision to the congregation, project realistic expectations about when and how to judge success, making generous allowance for system delays.
Remember that in general, the most frequent first sign of success in planning is that people get less happy. Planning teams, staff leaders, budgeters, and governing boards need to temper the enthusiasm—widespread these days—for immediate, measurable results, for a simple reason: even if all goes well, the numbers may go down for a while before they rise.
Comment on this article at the Alban Roundtable blog.
Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant at the Alban Institute. “Don’t Underestimate the System Delays” originally appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Clergy Journal (logosproductions.com)
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